While action against climate change languishes, the rhetoric keeps getting more intense. For several years now it hasn’t been enough to demand climate policy; we need climate justice. We will not only eliminate fossil fuels in a decade or three, we will solve the problems of poverty and discrimination, and all in a single political package. It sounds good, but what does it mean?
You might look for an answer in new legislation introduced by AOC and Kamala Harris, the Climate Equity Act. As reported yesterday, it establishes a federal Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability, whose job would be to evaluate all proposed regulations according to their impact on low income communities. No doubt this would bring more attention to issues at the intersection of green politics and social justice, which is all to the good, but creating new layers of oversight still doesn’t answer the question, what is climate justice?
Is justice about taking care of, say, the bottom 20% of the income distribution? The bottom half? Some other number? And what counts as an impact?
The first thing to notice is that, by limiting matters of justice to low income communities, the bill reinforces a politics that divides the world into the socially excluded, the poorest and most vulnerable, on the one hand and everyone else on the other. The majority of voters are effectively enlisted as allies of those at the bottom. This is the consequence of drawing the line where they do. A very different politics was proposed by Occupy, placing 99% of us in one camp and the top 1% in the other.
The second thing is, again as reported, the bill does not specify what impacts are critical or what criteria should be applied to them; it is a plan to have a plan. Presumably the justice accountability specialists will know how to do this, which is useful since, apparently, we are still debating it.
The limitations of AOC-Harris become clearer when you consider what the centerpiece of any meaningful climate policy has to be: suppressing the use of fossil fuels, which will entail putting a steep price on them. (This can be done either with a permit system or taxes, quantity controls or price controls; permits are by far the better option.) We are talking hundreds of dollars per metric ton of carbon, which translates to several dollars per gallon of gas at the pump and similar added costs for heating, electricity and other energy uses and sources. Will this have a devastating effect on low income communities? Absolutely, and it will be nearly as unbearable for everyone below the top fifth or so. Fortunately, we also know the solution: rebate the carbon money back to the public, using the progressive formula of equal rebates to all households. This approach does the best possible job of protecting the living standards of the majority of the population, at the same time assuaging, as much as any program can, the fears that might make a stringent carbon policy politically unattainable.
This is not everything a carbon policy has to do, but it is the one part that is non-optional. It does not single out low income communities for protection, however, and one could argue that every dollar that goes to someone in the middle of the distribution in the form of a rebate is one less dollar for those near the bottom. If climate justice is simply about that bottom tier, the politics of AOC-Harris are deeply misguided. On the other hand, we can avoid a lot of superfluous bureaucracy by simply insisting that all, or close to all, carbon revenues be returned to those who pay them in higher energy prices, and that this be done according to a progressive formula like equal lump sums. That would mean we would stop beating around the bush when it comes to identifying policy impacts and adopt a majoritarian conception of social justice.
Incidentally, the article accepts as proven that low income communities “are disproportionately affected by climate change because they are often in flood zones, near highways or power plants, or adjacent to polluted lands known as brownfields.” Not really. It is true that the poor are always more vulnerable to any social or environmental disruption because they can’t afford to prepare for or escape it, but climate change is pretty close to an equal opportunity ravager. Low elevation land can be at greater risk, as it was with Katrina, but sea level rise particularly endangers coastal property—typically higher end—while forest fires are an existential threat to the high income homeowners who have chosen to nestle their getaways in what they thought would be sylvan paradises. The real social justice concerns about climate change are global: the truly vulnerable are those living in tropical regions subject to extreme heat, drought and flooding risks, and more violent storms. I’d love to see legislation that takes that moral emergency seriously.